Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work explores illness, medicine, science and the end of life.
Her debut novel The Waiting Room won the Voss Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Helen Asher Award. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones won the 2019 International Book Awards in both Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction categories and the 2019 Best Book Awards for Literary Fiction.
We’re all Going to Die has been described as ‘a joyful book about death’. She also conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers, and is co-author of Cracking the Code.
She has written for the BBC, Huffington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review, SBS and LitHub, amongst others.
ASTRID: Leah Kaminsky is both a practicing GP and a writer. She has published nine books, both fiction and non-fiction, and her work explores illness, medicine, science and death - themes not far from all of us.
ASTRID: Leah, welcome to The Garret.
LEAH: Hi Astrid, thanks for having me.
ASTRID: What is the role of storytelling in medicine?
LEAH: Oh gosh, I think it's essential from, you know, way back to shamanic healing and medicine men. I mean, I think it's integral. If you lose the story when you're speaking to a patient then I think you practice an empty kind of profession.
ASTRID: So you are both, you are a writer and a GP. You see ill people and healthy people all the time, but you've also studied writing. You are a prolific writer both in short form and also, you know, longer works of both fiction and non-fiction. On first pass I don't think a lot of people think of doctors as creative, and I don't think necessarily people think of creatives as necessarily having the temperament to practice medicine. So, for you, where do these two meet?
LEAH: [Laughter] Well, a true confession I got into medicine many years ago on my English and French marks at school. I kind of scrapped it in on the sciences. I've always read, I've always been a fierce reader. My first poem was published in the school magazine in Grade 3. You’d love me to recite that one, wouldn't you?
So, in a sense I've always loved writing and reading. Medicine… I was very fortunate. That's all I wanted to do. I don't remember why, but it felt like that was the meaning in my life was to work with people. You know, childhood thoughts of saving them or improving their lives. Very altruistic.
So I guess, in those days going through medical school, which was a six year course, really beat it out of me, beat a lot of the humanities out of me. You had to focus, it was very much what we called tunnel vision, which is a medical term you can only see in front of you, you lose your peripheral vision. And so coming out at the end of medicine I hadn't had time to read I hadn't had a lot of time to write, and it was really only when I was a junior doctor in the hospitals – and I've written about this – galvanized by a certain experience that just really undid me... working on a paediatric oncology ward, where I just couldn't keep it all together anymore. And I turned… I really broke down, but I turned back to writing and reading. I think nowadays you know people talk a lot about medical humanities and narrative medicine and that the story is central. In those days I think it was very much narrower, and the humanities were very much, you know, the dummies did that.
ASTRID: They were like that in my day too.
LEAH: There's a real snobbery amongst science students. You know, where were the geniuses? Well, let me tell you we were not.
So, I came back to that and then I went back and actually enrolled in RMIT in a professional writing and editing course. And I went back and followed up. You know, there were wonderful writers that were teaching me then. I had Carmel Bird and Judith Rodriguez and Antoni Jach, and it was just wonderful. And then I went on to do a B.A. in writing and literature. I had Gerald Murnane as a teacher. So, I just felt like… I mean obviously the medicine has always informed my writing to some degree, but I think more importantly the reading, literature, books, writing, I hope more importantly I think has informed my life as a doctor or my practice as a doctor.
ASTRID: I have no doubt it would, and I'm interested in teasing that out, both from a reader's point of view and also I am a person with a chronic illness. And I find myself fascinated with doctors who are also writers. Now in Australia I can think of Melanie Cheng and I can think of Karen Hitchcock.
LEAH: Jacinta Halloran. There's a lot of them.
ASTRID: It's a really interesting space for me. It teaches me, and I like to think that stories teach doctors as well. You mentioned the phrase narrative medicine before I'd like to come back to that a little bit later, but you also mentioned that you got into medicine on the strength of your humanities.
LEAH: Well, that's actually that's actually a lie, if I may I digress. I hope none of my patients are listening to this. I actually applied for vet school and I missed out by one mark, so I got into medical school. [Laughter]
ASTRID: I don't know whether to follow up on that! This is an interesting question. So, I recently read Karen Hitchcock's The Medicine, which came out and she actually refers to the fact that she got into medicine because they had a push to take more humanities students who also got good marks in the sciences because they realized that doctors weren't necessarily understanding the human part of medicine. So, she became a doctor through her words as well. And this does intrigue me.
LEAH: Well, I think there has been a shift, and Karen is younger than me when. When I went through they were not having any of that. So, I think it was very science based in its model. That is changing, although I don't think it's changed enough. And more overseas than here I think the humanities are being incorporated. A friend of mine in the States, Danielle Ofri, does a wonderful ward round. She's an internist at Bellevue and she takes her students around on the ward and reads a poem at the end of the bed of the patient, and she sees the faces of the students that are going ‘ weirdo’, but it helps them to reflect on that holistic sort of side, that human side of illness.
ASTRID: Very much so. You’ve said publicly before and you've alluded to it that the fear of death was what originally pointed you towards writing, or let you go back to that space, because the writing afforded you a space to think through and explore what we as humans can't know. Can you go into that for me a little bit and maybe muse on if and how it has changed over your writing career through all of your published works?
LEAHS: I'm not sure… I mean, I'm not sure a fear of death was what galvanized me to write. It certainly galvanized me to write one of my books, which was a non-fiction book called We Are All Going To Die.
ASTRID: That is a great title.
LEAH: You know, you wake up one morning and you kind of think, ‘Gosh, I'm scared of death’. And it's not such a huge revelation for most of humanity, but for someone whose bread and butter is mortality, you know I'm dealing with it every day in and out, hopefully not too much but… to actually be fearful of it and not to have thought it through I thought was fairly important. So, I kind of turned around and did a middle-aged road trip to try and confront that fear and put it together in that book.
I think… I don't have to lie on a couch for people to analyse the dominant themes in my work. I think death is part of it but so is life, you know, what makes a good life. I think I've always written to try and understand what I think. It's been a processing sort of thing, but also in the writing and in the reading I can then try and find the words for what I know in my kind of muscle memory, I guess, or my heart memory.
And that's what happens if I read a book and it expresses what I already know but haven't put into words, that is that ‘aha’ moment, that's Kafka, that's like, ‘Oh wow, he said it exactly, that's exactly what I think’. So, for me to try and find the words that will express who I am was important from the beginning.
ASTRID: So, let's stay with your non-fiction for a moment, and then we will move into your lovely novels.
LEAH: Yeah, I'm kind of genre fluid.
ASTRID: Look, that is a good thing.
LEAH: It is a skill, it's like being a GP – just do a bit of everything.
ASTRID: You do what you need at any given time. Given that you are an accredited doctor, when you write non-fiction what kind of a responsibility or what are the ethics that come into play as a medical professional, you know putting stuff down that will be remembered and read and disseminated.
LEAH: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we've taken an oath to first do no harm, and I don't want to end up in jail either. And I want to be respectful of my patients and that patient doctor privacy is the most honoured relationship. So, I would never betray a patient. Often what I will do is a pastiche of patients – it's not a patient, I will definitely change the names, the features to make them not identifiable, unless of course I've had permission.
And there was one book that I wrote with the Damiani about their little boy. You know, they were… There was permission from the word go. So, I would never compromise a patient, because I think that's exploitive too. Not only is it unethical, it's exploitive, it's damaging to the relationship and it's just plain wrong.
ASTRID: So that's you talking about the individual patients that you meet in your practice. What about on that kind of broader level? You know, I read a lot of books about health and illness just to satisfy my own curiosity, and sometimes I read one and I think, ‘I don't know if this is right’. Like, I'm no medical professional but some of the big books that are maybe talking about new research or maybe what research will do for us in the future, and I don't know… Sometimes as a reader when I stop trusting authors and yet I do find myself stop trusting authors who write about, like doctors who write medical books. And so, I'm really interested in your idea of, you know, is there any way that you wouldn't go or is it because…
LEAH: Everything that I write that that would draw from research I would fact check till the cows come home. I would not put anything – at least knowingly – on paper that hasn't been fact checked. And certainly when I'm writing non-fiction articles, you know, my editors have been… I've been very fortunate to have fact checkers. Having said that, you know, you put something down on paper and you have it as whole and perfect as you can possibly get it as a writer. And then it's in the reader's hands. So for example, early last year I did an article for BBC Future, and it was about women's anatomy. And so, I had a lot of fun researching the naming of our bodies. And you know, your Fallopian tubes and your Pouch of Douglas, and you know, even the word vagina – the linguistic origins and the historical origins, and a lot of them came from white male anatomist, or they were pejorative. A vagina – I can’t remember in which language – means sheath. I think it's the Greek I'm not sure. So, you know the sheath for your sword. So, this article was such fun for me to write and so revealing. I mean I've grown up with all this language, and never thought about it. When I'm talking to you about your Fallopian tubes, I never realised who Professor Fallopian was and what he did. Or the Sim’s speculum that I use every single day who the rather unpleasant fellow was that invented it. I published this, and it got half a million hits, and I woke up the following morning with Jordan Peterson retweeting it saying this is probably the stupidest dumbest article I've ever read. Plus all of his followers, you know, completely and utterly piling on. And I got death threats and it was scary. So, I had fact checked every single thing that went in…
ASTRID: So what were they offended by? The fact that you dared to put this…
LEAH: That I dared to say that when that language is important and perhaps we need to think about renaming the colonialisation of the female body.
ASTRID: Seems like a valid point to me.
LEAH: You know, you never know where your writing is going to go. And then I write other articles that I think even far more controversial and I'll get three readers. Go figure. But in terms of, you know, when I'm writing – whether it's fiction or non-fiction – I think the truth with a capital T is has to be first and foremost. You have to honour that. There's enough fake facts in the world, there is enough pseudoscience, which is what my whole second novel is about.
ASTRID: Do you do your patients read your books? Or would they tell you?
LEAH: Some of them do. So yeah they've been fantastically supportive. I don't think a lot of them know that I'm a writer. I don't sort of present myself as a writer. When I'm in the clinic I'm in the clinic. But I still… I am a writer in that chair in the clinic. I'm listening to story I'm listening for nuance, I’m listening for subtext, I'm listening for what's not said, what's between the lines. And that I think is more important than the questionnaire, you know, on a scale of one to 10.
ASTRID: This brings us back to narrative storytelling and narrative stories in medicine. And I guess by that I'm grouping a few different types of writing. There is proper communication between patient and doctor, which is more than just you know the ten question quiz. But then there is the academic study, the research into compiling patient stories and the lived experience particularly of more complicated illnesses or chronic illnesses or severe illnesses as part of doctor training and preparation. So, instead of just giving the you know what happens to the human body, you understand what happens to the person who is experiencing something. And then there is, you know, from a different area patients and people with various illnesses and disabilities telling their own stories and trying to push back against the medical profession. And I watch this and wonder and feel excited by it, but you strike me as a person who maybe can answer whether they matter or where they are having an impact on both professions.
LEAH: It's a really… it's a complex complicated question. I don't think I have answers, and I don't think answers are important. Questions are more important. So, for me you know to sit there in my role as a professional medico, I need to be questioning what I'm already… what I'm already thinking, my script that I've learned over years and years, and try and… You know, it's like doing a jigsaw puzzle sometimes when you've got people with very complex conditions and complex lives. So, you try to find these puzzles. And it's really frustrating sometimes, you can't find a diagnosis, you can't work out what's wrong, and it drives me nuts. But in that journey there are things that you can do. So, for me it's a bit like finding the pieces of a puzzle which is complicated. I need to go to all sorts of... It's a bit like writing a novel, I guess. I mean, the patients at the centre of it and obviously I need to hear them and not pre-empt what is said, not tell them what their symptoms are. It has to be open ended. I need to be listening. And I don't do it well all the time, I'm a human being and you know… You'd have to interview my patients to see what they think, but at least I try, and I think you know a lot of my colleagues do. And I think there's more awareness of that. You know, the Medicare kind of push to save a patient every five minutes doesn't actually engender a lot of it.
ASTRID: I don’t think it works very well in terms of actually helping the patient.
ASTRID: As we've said, you write both fiction and non-fiction. Thinking about your... How do you approach them? Do you need to be in a different mental space? Do you have a different approach to research, because there is quite a lot of research in your fiction books as well.
LEAH: Yeah. I don't always know what I'm setting out to write. Sometimes it'll be a lightning bolt, but other times I've… You know, at the moment I've started out writing a book that I thought was non-fiction, and suddenly it slipped into a novel and it's better.
ASTRID: This is your current work?
LEAH: Yeah. And that feels right. But I do research as I go. I'm not a very organised person. I'm what's called a born messy. So I love that kind of… You know, David Grossman is one of my favourite writers, and he talks about writing a novel in particular is like walking in the souq in the marketplace and you stumble across a carpet, you know, a little cave with the little man that's selling intricate carpets, and he's calling you in and he's trying to seduce you into his cave to buy a carpet. He's gradually unrolling and you're seeing the intricacy of the patterns and you follow, and you're in the dark but you're following that wave. So that's sort of the archaeological kind of dig that you go on when you're writing, which I love. That's my favourite. That's when I'm kind of like you know it's my yoga I guess.
ASTRID: So, take us back to your first published novels. That was The Waiting Room, published in 2015. Now that novel won the Voss Literary Prize, congratulations. And it's about Dina, an Australian Jewish writer who moved back to Israel.
LEAH: Doctor, she she's a doctor.
ASTRID: Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm looking at you and I'm thinking writer.
LEAH: Yeah, everyone thinks it's me.
ASTRID: So, I'm not going to ask is that you. But I do want to ask how much of you is in your fiction. I don't mean a specific character, but I mean you know you the person finding yourself in a novel.
LEAH: I think we're all in our novels. They come from us. They come from somewhere. This one everybody... The first question everyone has asked me through every festival and every gig I've done on The Waiting Room is, you know, my debut novel, is this autobiographical?
ASTRID: So many first novels are.
LEAH: Well, there are elements, yes. You know, I lived in Israel and worked as a doctor at the Bahá'í World Centre for 10 years. So yes, it's going to be some biographical elements in there. My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, so that sort of galvanized one of the characters in the book who's actually a kind of metaphorical ghost that floats around and kind of ubiquitous Jewish mother really goes away. But my answer is pretty much… I wish it was autobiographical, because in that way I would have known what my mother's story is. But I was a teenager, you know, a daughter of refugees growing up in Melbourne wanting to be an Aussie chick. And really, not wanting to turn around and look at the baggage and the dark heritage that my family carried. So, I refused to listen and when my mother died when I was quite young, when I did say, ‘Oh I've got to write a story about it’, she was amazing and sat down and took the week off and poured the coffee and got the exercise books. I had three pages of notes that I could eke out, and that was it, much to my horror and shame.
So, The Waiting Room is a what if, what if this was my mother's story? I had to go back and go to the dark places I never wanted to go and read testimonies and read around that to try and figure out, well, maybe this is what she may have experienced. I don't know.
ASTRID: So, in your second novel, which is more recent obviously and came out in 2019, The Hollow Bones, it's historical fiction in a slightly different way.
ASTRID: Yes, you laugh. You do look at the Holocaust but from a very different position and starting point. And as a piece of historical fiction I'm really interested in how you took real people, in the case of Ernst Schaeffer not a particularly well-known real person, but nevertheless a real person – who did end up at Nuremberg and then was acquitted, along with small appearances by Himmler and Goering and other more well-known appearances, well known people. But you come at it because this is… Well, it's one of medicine and science's darkest times in the 20th century. And you come at it… He's a scientist. He's a researcher. He wants to find the truth. And gets distracted, to put it mildly. What was the impetus there?
LEAH: Moral obligation, I think. I stumbled across his story when I was reading… The main character in The Waiting Room is a doctor, and she's a Jewish doctor. So, she's in that sense she's me. But I put her in a situation of moral choices, because I mean the doctors in war are the ones that are really high up there in the machinery and in designing the whole thing. The doctors in the Third Reich were high up, although we know of lots of nasty doctors in various different atrocities around the world. So, for me it was really looking at where is that that divide between a healing profession and going really wrong. And researching that, reading like Robert Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, I read quite widely on that.
I also thought well what about scientists? Scientists kept coming up. And so googling scientists. You know, I came up with… Ernst Schaeffer's name kept coming up as a little-known SS officer who was a zoologist, a passionate ornithologist, who led several American-German joint trips when he was young to Tibet. He ended up being invited by Himmler to lead a German expedition, which took place just before the outbreak of World War II.
And so, Ernst became for me…. I was absolutely fascinated. I mean, it was a place I was terrified to go, because reading about the perpetrators. I mean these were the people that killed my entire family tree. My mother was the sole survivor. So, it was very uncomfortable. But it was also something I knew, something I was breast fed, sadly. So, it felt awkwardly comfortable. I don't mean that in any weird way, but I really I wanted to see where did this little man who was a bird lover as a child grew up in the Thuringian Forest, where did he go wrong? And what horrified me more than anything was that there wasn't one line in the sand where he went wrong, there were lots of imperceptible choices that we all make day to day that just started him down that slippery slope into, ‘This doesn't matter, that doesn't matter. I can do that and yes I'll go on this expedition sponsored by Himmler who believes in the building block of the universe is an ice crystal not an atom’.
ASTRID: I know, you made me giggle that when I was reading it. I was like, ‘did Leah make this up?’
LEAH: No, that was the scientific platform of the Third Reich for many years.
ASTRID: And you know, they also… by following Ernst’s story and his slow abandonment of scientific principles, you know, as he is willingly sucked in further into the hierarchy of the SS in the Third Reich…
LEAH: To advance his career.
ASTRID: To advance his career, which is a decision people have made throughout history.
LEAH: And disturbingly and we're still seeing it today, that kind of blurring. You know, what happens when politics and science gets into bed together. We are really seeing that today, look at climate change denial.
ASTRID: It is everywhere. It's against the facts. Now, you don't go into Auschwitz or any of the camps in The Hollow Bones explicitly, but you do look at and involve in the narrative two other really disturbing areas of that period – phrenology the pseudoscience of proving that the Aryan race is superior to others.
ASTRID: Eugenics. And the experiments conducted on Jews and people with disabilities and any other marginalized group are happening around the place. They are dark themes, and I really wanted to stop and talk about the character of Marguerite. Margaret. How do you say her name?
LEAH: Marguerite, I think in German.
ASTRID: I not good with the languages. Now, she is a person with a disability from birth, and the family makes a choice to hide her away and doctor her birth certificate. So, they're obviously already feeling social pressure well before Hitler is on the scene in the 30s, but I found myself unable to stop thinking about her and how you brought up issues for the reader. Her parents looked after her for many years, eventually gets too much for them, they leave her with the local priest, and quite soon after that she is taken away. And eventually the mother gives the explanation to the daughter who's asking where's my sister, ‘We thought she was taken away to be sterilized but she didn't come back. So, we don't know’. And again, it's the medical themes I mean enforced sterilization and disappearances... Not everyone goes there in the novels.
LEAH: Yeah. You know, I feel compelled to. I mean, Marguerite is fictionalised. Everyone in this book is based on a true character except Herta, who is Ernst Schaeffer's childhood sweetheart and eventually his bride. All I could find in all of my research, I could find even Himmler’s was eye colour! I could find so much detail on everybody, the Germans kept enormous records. Herta – who is actually Herta Voltz – was a real human being.
ASTRID: And she was the sister of Marguerite.
LEAH: Yes, she disappeared from history, was white wiped out of history. She died. Spoiler alert, I won't say how or when, but all I could find in the end when the book was going to actually to the type setters was her death. My husband found her death certificate to prove that she actually did die when we thought she died, so that as a novelist… I mean, that horrified me as a human being, that a woman's been wiped out of history. But as a novelist it gave me the gift that I could make her whoever I wanted. As far as I know she could have been a card carrying very true good little Nazi, but I've made hers much more nuanced than that, and given her a sister who was disabled. And this was sort of early 30s, you know, Hitler started coming to light in 33 or so, but prior to that there was – in Australia as well, Melbourne University, in America – racial anthropology and eugenics was a very… it was a science. And there were very complex studies of the hierarchy of race and human beings, studying the skull size, measuring the penis length, all sorts of… you know, skin colour. We've sort of heard about all of that.
So, I wanted to give her this sister Marguerite, who in those days would have been euthanized, that was a huge program that the Third Reich got behind, not so much to highlight what was actually going on but more to give Ernst Schaeffer a kind of moral conundrum. He grew up with this family, and as an SS Officer this is a secret that if he had revealed... I mean, if there was any impurity in your family or your wife's family you would be dead. You would be stripped of all your everything and sent to the front and that was it. You had to be pure as pure. You had to get the church records of your both of your families back to the 1700s. If there was any mental illness or physical abnormalities or epilepsy you were not fit to be a pure SS Aryan Officer. So, Marguerite is the secret that Ernst has to keep, and I wanted to put that in there as a novelist as another obstacle, just something to help me explore who this man was and what lengths he was willing to go to.
ASTRID: So, as I said Ernst is a real person. He is on the historical record. When you sit down to write him you do know where he ends up and what happens to him. How do you find like the person in him? How do you find what will keep a reader turning the page?
LEAH: Well, I don't know. I don't think all readers… He's not a likeable character.
ASTRID: He's not.
LEAH: Nor did I really want to make him one. But then I also didn't want to turn him into a little goose-stepping Nazi caricature. So I tried as best as I could to represent him fairly and try and get into his head, because I think it all stemmed from my mother really, because what I do remember as children is her telling us there's the potential for good and evil in all of us. Despite everything she'd been through she refused to believe that some people were just 100 per cent evil. That might have been a bit naïve, I think some that are pretty creepy, but I didn't want… I wanted to see how does an ordinary human being turn bad. And you know, I had to channel Ernst myself and try and not excuse what he did, but try and perhaps make a step towards understanding how a whole country followed this mass hysteria and the fascism and I mean, the horrific part of researching 1930s Germany was seeing the parallels in 2020, in 2019, in the world today. There are some things that have not changed.
ASTRID: You mentioned that you were writing another book. When is that set? Will you be writing a contemporary story?
LEAHS: I don't know. Also, they say don't X-ray a woman when she's pregnant. I'm pregnant with this book at the moment, and I'm a pantser not a plotter, so I kind of hate Graeme Simsion, who tells me, ‘Oh, I've plotted it all out’. I cannot do that to save myself. It's like, I’m born messy. And also, it's not fun for me either. A I can't do it and B I don't want to do it, because I think the magic for me in writing and the process is in following that scene, following the carpet that David Grossman talks about, and just letting your imagination take you wherever it's going to take you. It may not end up in the book at the end. When I've got 60,000 words together I'm like, ‘Where do these all fit?’
ASTRID: So, you don't write in chronological order?
LEAH: Not often, no. I've got a view of how it is. But with The Hollow Bones, I mean in a way I knew the story of Ernst Schaeffer. In a way at times that was constraining for me because I couldn't… I had to stick to the truth. And that didn't leave me… I couldn't go crazy. That's why I think I had to put the voice of a taxidermied panda in the book.
ASTRID: So, tell me about Panda.
LEAH: Oh God.
ASTRID: I didn't realise the baby panda was a baby panda at first. And I thought, ‘Did I miss that?. And I'm like, ‘No, this is definitely a panda’.
ASTRID: It's a panda in the museum.
LEAH: I mean, readers have been divided into Team Panda and Team oh-my-God-what-is-Leah-doing-this-is-outrageously-stupid. But I had to go with my inner voice, and I had to honour panda and have him in the book. And it might mean that it's not going to be the popular historical fiction book that everyone's expecting it to be, it's not a Dan Brown novel that maybe you think from the blurb, but that voice was critical for me as the voice of animals. And we can have a whole other discussion about that.
But I knew… I had read in my research that Ernst Schaeffer had been the second Westerner to shoot a panda in the wild. Theodore Roosevelt had shot the first, and this is the time of dioramas, where people were flocking... It was big money to come and see stuffed animals in museums. There was no telly, we didn't have David Attenborough movies, you know. So, these pelts were worth a lot of money and Ernst was a crack hunter. And that was the bloody history of zoology – you needed specimens, and if you were a crack hunter that went hand in hand with being a zoologist. So, the panda fascinated me.
And then I was on tour in the States when The Waiting Room came out there, and I was in Philadelphia for the day. So I saw the Academy of Natural Sciences, so I thought ‘I'll go and have a look what's in there, I love a good dinosaur skeleton’. And I went in and I knew that he had worked there, he'd started his thesis there and his original expeditions were a joint expedition with them. So, I went in and asked the librarian have you got anything about any Schaefer? And she went out the back and came out with 14 boxes of archives. Dusty archives that no one had looked at for years and years. I had a day and I started sifting through it, and I saw this these anatomical drawings of a baby panda, and there was a picture of a tailbone and I said, ‘Do you know anything about that?’. And she goes, ‘No, I'll send you down to the basement to speak to Ned who's the curator’. So, I went down to the basement surrounded by elk heads and thylacines, it was bizarre. And he had a look and said ‘Oh yeah’, because he had been trained by the original curator who had worked hand-in-hand with Ernest Schaeffer. This all got sort of very fascinating.
And he went to a drawer and pulled out the bones of the baby panda, which had been labelled by Ernst Schaffer in his little script. And I said, ‘What happened to that panda? Do you still have the pelt?’ And he looked up his archives. He goes, ‘Oh it's interesting. He's upstairs’. I went back upstairs and he said, ‘Just ask Jen, she’ll show you where it is’. And he wrote a note and she had a look at it, and she said, ‘Oh, he's always just across the corridor there’. And I crossed over the corridor not knowing what these two were up to, and it was the panda diorama. And there were two adult pandas and my little – well, Schaeffer's little – four-month-old baby panda, who'd been there for 70 years. And I sat down and wept, for starters. But that for me… when I came back to Australia and started trying to piece together all the research, I was at Varuna, so I could start channelling Ernst Schaeffer's voice. How am I going to write from the point of view of a Nazi and out came this squeaky little panda?
ASTRID: You might be the only person in history who has put a panda and the Nazis in the same novel.
LEAH: I'm sure there must be others.
ASTRID: Maybe. You just mentioned Varuna. Now, Varuna is obviously a beautiful writer's retreat, a writer's residency, a place for writers to write in Australia. Now I was looking at your Twitter. Have you got a new residency?
LEAH: I have. I'm the luckiest person in the world.
ASTRID: Why are you looking at me so sadly?
LEAH: I'm not, I'm excited. I just can't believe I got it.
ASTRID: Please tell me.
LEAH: Varuna has been my creative home for years and years, and they were beautiful. I applied for a residency in Scotland, not sort of thinking I'll get it. And I was awarded this residency in a place called Cove Park. I actually got a message from Heather Rose who’d been there, and she said it's beautiful, and it's isolated. And everyone's telling me to take cardigans. It's a four-week writer's retreat and an appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is like…
ASTRID: Congratulations. Now when you get this type of residency, is that linked to a particular work that you proposed? Or are you allowed to…
LEAH: Yeah. The next novel.
ASTRID: But if you went and wrote something else, if you went and wrote poetry…
LEAH: I don't think they would… That's the thing, you go and you sit down and then out sneak these little poems… like, oh yeah, I'm working on my novel now. That is why I feel like the blank page will determine what the form is. I just open it out and just let whatever comes out comes out, whether it's going to be a BBC article or bloody hell, another novel, here we go.
ASTRID: As equal with panda!
ASTRID: When when you look back at what you've published so far, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, what is the work that you'll most proud of, for any reason?
LEAH: In what terms? My writing?
ASTRID: Interpret the question in any way you see fit.
LEAH: I'm most proud of my three beautiful children. Does that sound like a Jewish mother?
ASTRID: You do.
LEAH: I think probably finishing The Waiting Room, because that was… I say to audiences that was 10 years, that was a lifetime, 30 years easily, and when I crawled into Varuna… I applied in 2007 for a fellowship there, and the novel was just scraps all over the place that I had been struggling with and crying over and couldn't get together. And I got the Elanor Dark, and that was life changing. People actually believed that I'm a writer I can do this. And Peter Bishop was the creative director then who was an oracle. It was fantastic.
ASTRID: Varuna has that power.
LEAH: It really a very sacred place. It's home.
ASTRID: And soon Scotland will be too.
LEAH: I hope so.
ASTRID: Leah, I am looking very much forward to the third novel that you will be working on there. Congratulations.
LEAH: I can tell you the name, I can't tell you much else about it because I don't know.
ASTRID: Go for it.
LEAH: It's called Doll's Eye, that's the working title. We'll see where that goes.
ASTRID: Thank you very much for coming to The Garret.
LEAH: Thank you for having me. And for everything you do for Australian writers.